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rené daumal at age 15 experimenting with
"paroptic vision" at the home of his teacher,
rené maublanc, who took this photo.




rené daumal last portrait 1944 from poetry black, poetry white on
rené daumal on may 19, 1944, three days
before his passing, photographed
by his friend luc dietrich.



rené daumal's principal works
available in english translation:

Mount Analogue
A Night of Serious Drinking
Rasa, of Knowledge of the Self

plus selected poems in
The Poetry of Surrealism
The Random House Book of
Twentieth-Century French Poetry



by rené daumal

As with magic, poetry is black or white, depending on whether it serves the sub-human or the superhuman.

The same innate tendencies govern the machinery of the white poet and the black poet. Some call these tendencies a mysterious gift, a mark of superior powers; others an infirmity or a curse. No matter. Or rather, yes! - it matters highly, but we have not yet reached the point of being able to understand the origin of our essential structures. He who could understand them would deliver himself from them. The white poet seems to understand his poetic nature, to free himself from it and make it serve. The black poet uses it and becomes its slave.

But what is this "gift" common to all poets? It is a particular connection between the various lives which make up our life, such that each manifestation of one of them is no longer simply its exclusive sign, but could become, through an internal resonance, a sign of the emotion that at a given moment is one's own color, sound or taste. This central emotion, deeply hidden within us, vibrates and shines only in rare instants. For the poet, these instants will be poetic moments, and at such a moment all his thoughts, feelings, movements and words will be the signs of this central emotion. And when the unity of their meaning is realized in an image stated in words, then most especially will we say that he is a poet. This is what we will call the "poetic gift," for want of knowing more about it.

The poet has a rather unclear notion of his gift. The black poet exploits it for his personal satisfaction. He believes that he can take credit for this gift, that he himself voluntarily makes poems. Or else, giving in to the mechanism of resonant meanings, he prides himself on being possessed by a superior mind, which has chosen him as its medium. In both cases, the poetic gift serves only pride and delusive imagination. Whether schemer or visionary, the black poet lies to himself and believes he is someone. Pride, lies - still a third term characterizes him: laziness. Not that he doesn't act and struggle, or that it seems to come from outside. But all this movement happens by itself; he keeps from personally intervening
himself - this poor, naked self that wants neither to be seen nor to see itself as poor and naked, that each of us tries so hard to conceal under masks. It is the "gift" that operates in him, and he takes pleasure in it, like a voyeur, without showing himself. He wraps himself in the way the soft-bellied hermit crab takes shelter and adorns itself in the shell of the murex, made to produce royal purple and not to clothe shameful little runts. Laziness at seeing oneself, at being seen; fear of having no richness other than the responsibilities one assumes: this is the laziness I'm speaking of - oh mother of all my vices!

Black poetry is fertile in wonders like dreams and opium. The black poet tastes every pleasure, adorns himself in every ornament, exercises every power - in his imagination. The white poet prefers reality, even paltry reality, to these rich lies. His work is an incessant struggle against pride, imagination and laziness. Accepting his gift, even if he suffers from it and suffers from suffering, he seeks to make it serve ends greater than his selfish desires: the as-yet-unknown cause of this gift.

I will not say: so-and-so is a white poet, so-and-so is a black poet. This would be to fall from ideas into opinions, discussions and error. I will not even say: so-and-so has the poetic gift, so-and-so does not. Do I have it? Often I doubt it; sometimes I strongly believe I do. I am never certain once and for all. Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety. But if I was once a poet, I wish to be a white one. In fact, all human poetry is a mixture of white and black; but some tends toward whiteness, the other blackness.That which tends toward blackness need make no effort. It follows the natural, sub-human downward slope. One need not make an effort to brag, to dream, to lie and be lazy; nor to calculate and scheme, when calculating and scheming are for the benefit of vanity, imagination or inertia. But white poetry goes uphill. It swims upstream like the trout to go spawn in its birthplace. It holds fast, by force and by cunning, against the whims of the rapids and the eddies. It does not let itself be distracted by the shimmering of passing bubbles, nor be swept away by the current toward soft, muddy valleys.

How does the poet who wants to become white wage this battle? I will tell you how I try to wage it, in my rare better moments, so that one day, if I am a poet, my poetry - grey as it may be - will exude at least a desire for whiteness.

I will distinguish three phases of the poetic operation: the luminous seed, the clothing in images, and verbal expression.

Every poem is born of a seed, dark at first, which we must make luminous for it to produce fruits of light. With the black poet, the seed remains dark and produces blind, subterranean vegetation. To make it shine, one must create silence, for this seed is the Thing-to-be-said itself, the central emotion that seeks to express itself through my whole machine. The machine by itself is dark, but it likes to proclaim itself luminous, and manages to make itself believed. As soon as it is set in motion by the seed's germination, it claims to be acting under its own steam, it shows off for the perverse pleasure of each of its levers and gears. So be quiet, machine! Work and shut up! Silence to word games, memorized lines, memories fortuitously assembled; silence to ambition, to the desire to shine - for only light shines by itself; silence to self-flattery and self-pity; silence to the rooster who thinks he makes the sun rise! And silence parts the shadows, the seed begins to glow, lighting, not lit. That is what you have to do. It is very difficult, but each little effort receives a little glimmer of light in reward. The Thing-to-be-said then appears in its most intimate form, as an eternal certainty - a pinpoint of light containing the immensity of the desire for Being.

The second phase is the clothing of the luminous seed, which reveals but is not revealed, invisible like light and silent like sound - its clothing in the images that will make it manifest. Here again, reviewing these images, one must reject and chain down those which would serve only easiness, lies and pride. So many beauties we would like to show off. But once the order is established, we must let the seed itself choose the plant or animal in which it will clothe itself by giving it life.

And third comes the verbal expression, for which it is no longer a matter simply of internal work, but also of external science and know-how. The seed has its own respiration. Its breath takes possession of the expressive mechanisms by communicating its rhythm to them. Thus, these mechanisms should, first of all, be well oiled and just relaxed enough so that they do not start dancing their own dances and scanning incongruous meters. And as it bends the sounds of language to its breath, the Thing-to-be-said also compels them to contain its images. Now, how does it carry out this double operation? That is the mystery. It is not by intellectual scheming: that would require too much time; nor by instinct, for instinct does not invent. This power is exercised thanks to the particular relation that exists between the various elements of the poet's machinery, and that unites matters as different as emotions, images, concepts and sounds in a single living substance. The life of this new organism is the poet's rhythm.

The black poet does almost precisely the opposite, although the exact semblance of these operations is performed in him. His poetry, of course, opens a number of worlds to him, but they are worlds without Sun, lit by a hundred fantastic moons, populated by phantoms, decorated with mirages and sometimes paved with good intentions. White poetry opens the door to only one world, that of the unique Sun, without false wonders, real.

I have said what one must do to become a white poet. As if it were that easy! Even in prose, in ordinary speech and writing (as in all aspects of my daily life), all that I produce is grey, salt-and-pepper, soiled, a mixture of light and darkness. And so I take up the struggle after the fact. I re-read myself. In my sentences, I see words, expressions, interferences that do not serve the Thing-to-be-said: an image that meant to be strange, a pun that thought it was funny, the pedantry of a certain prig who would do better to stay seated at his desk instead of coming to play the fipple flute in my string quartet. And remarkably enough, it is simultaneously a mistake in taste, style, or even syntax. Language itself seems set up in such a way as to detect the intruders for me. Few mistakes are purely technical. Almost all of them are my mistakes. And I cross out, and I correct, with the joy one can have at cutting a gangrenous limb from one's body.



Reprinted with permission from The Powers of the Word: Selected Essays and Notes 1927-1943, by René Daumal, edited and translated by Mark Polizzotti, published by City Lights Books, 1991. Visit City Lights Books online at

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